U.S. military bases leave a toxic legacy

IPS, Asia Times, 2 April 1999

WASHINGTON—The U.S. military is long gone from its bases in the Philippines but a toxic legacy of polluted water, soil and air is still very much in evidence, says a Philippines-based environmental organization.

The environmentalists say that toxic contamination threatens the health of people living near old U.S. facilities—Clark Air Force Base and the Subic Bay Naval Base—which were handed back to the Philippine government in 1991. They now operate as business areas and free trade zones, with allied tourist attractions.

It would cost about $1 billion to clean up the toxic mess, according to Christina Leano and Amy Toledo, two researchers with the People's Task Force for Bases Clean Up.

The United States is evading its responsibility for the public health damage and threats it has left in the former bases, they declared. U.S. negligence threatens the lives and the environment of the communities surrounding these facilities.

Various reports since 1991 by the World Health Organisation and the U.S. General Accounting Office found unsafe levels of lead,mercury and pesticides in the soil and ground water near the bases.

Environmental surveys, conducted in 1997 by the U.S. consulting firm Weston International at the request of the Philippine government, reported similar findings of toxic contamination.

Several different kinds of solvents, including benzene and lindane, were found in soil and ground water in the bases, according to Weston.

In a new report by the Canada-based International Institute forte Concern of Public Health and the People's Task Force, several communities around Clark Air Force Base were found to have very high rates of respiratory, kidney, urinary, nervous and female reproductive health problems. Skin ailments and birth defects were also recorded.

Drinking-water wells reportedly have been contaminated by waste from the base and some people have taken barrels once used to hold solvents and pesticides from the bases and now use them to store water and other items.

The highest prevalence of these problems occurred in communities closest to or on the base and highly contaminated sites, says Leano. The Philippines has neither the financial nor the technical capacities to deal with the problem.

The billion-dollar price tag is something Filipinos cannot afford to consider, especially with the current economic crisis in the region, says Leano.

Last year, former Philippine President Fidel Ramos brought up the question of cleaning up the bases with U.S. President Bill Clinton who in turn made a verbal agreement to set up a U.S. task force to address the contamination.

But, according to Leano, no such U.S. organization has been created.

We were never asked to do anything because of that meeting between Ramos and Clinton, Gary Vest, a spokesman on environmental affairs at the U.S. Department of Defense, told IPS in an interview last year.

The Pentagon says that it has no legal authority or legal liability to do anything with regard to environmental contamination at former overseas U.S. bases that have already been returned to the host country, unless there was a plan negotiated before the transfer.

Nothing in international law or in any of the agreements between the Philippine government and the U.S. gives rise to any liability to do anything, said Vest.

He added that the Department of Defense cannot spend money on a clean-up in the Philippines since it hasn't received permission fromCongress. Technically even if I wanted to do an environmentalsurvey at an overseas base, if I don't have any legal authority Ican't spend the tax-payers' money to do it, Vest said.

The standards set by Congress to clean up domestic bases aremuch greater than requirements for bases overseas, according toJohn Lindsay-Poland, coordinator of Latin American and Caribbean campaigns at the California-based Fellowship of Reconciliation, a non-profit organization.

While the United States has spent $102 million onoverseas base clean-ups during the last four years, this is smallchange compared to the 2.13 billion budgeted to clean up domesticbases for 1998, he says.

After reports of environmental contamination of the former U.S.bases in the Philippines began to surface, local governmentofficials announced that they would provide potable water topeople surrounding Clark Air Force Base.

Once this proved to be too expensive, they asked the federalgovernment for help. Several Philippine senators are now callingon President Joseph Estrada to demand the United States clean upthe bases.

Philippine lawmakers also are opposing a proposed agreementwith the United States which would allow for the resumption of jointmilitary exercises and for U.S. warships to visit the Philippines.

The agreement does not include any environmental protectionprovisions, they say.

The United States has not owned up to its toxic legacy andfuture visiting forces will only create more toxic and hazardouswaste, be it in the form of ammunition or cleaning materials,says Leano. Toxic and hazardous waste is part and parcel of military exercises.